Going into the 2009-2010 college basketball season, I can honestly say that I've rarely seen a UCLA Bruin basketball team with more uncertainties about what their fortunes will be.
Viewing things that way is more or less inevitable, especially considering that the Bruins are returning just one starter, senior forward Nikola Dragovic, and lost not only key guys such as Darren Collison, Josh Shipp, and Alfred Aboya, but also Jrue Holiday, who jumped to the NBA after his freshman year and is now a Philadelphia 76er.
Early departures have clearly hurt UCLA in recent times. If Holiday and fellow one-and-done star Kevin Love had stayed in Westwood through their senior years, the Bruins would be locks for the Final Four this year and favorites for the national championship.
But as the old saying goes, you have to play with the hand you are dealt.
Outside of Dragovic and fellow seniors James Keefe and Michael Roll, this year's version of college basketball's most successful program features players that are talented and have potential, but who are also young, inexperienced, and raw.
Coach Ben Howland, in his seventh year at the helm, has essentially been conducting Basketball 101 at Pauley Pavilion as he and his staff try to mold his team of high level recruits into a unit that can contend for the Pac-10 Conference title and go deep into the NCAA Tournament, something that the Bruin hoops faithful demand on a yearly basis.
Following a 26-9 (13-5 in the Pac-10, good for second place) season and an appearance in the Big Dance's second round, if UCLA wants to approach those heights and beyond, many people need to step up.
And step up big.
In addition to Roll, Jerime Anderson and Malcolm Lee, both sophomores, will anchor the guard positions, with Anderson taking over at the point. While they both hold great potential—Lee shot 50 percent from the field last year—it remains to be seen whether or not Anderson and Lee will be effective enough to offset the losses of Collison and Holiday.
Keefe, Dragovic, and sophomore Drew Gordon, who led the team with a .565 field goal percentage in 2008-09, will be counted on at the small and power forward spots.
The Bruins' key player, perhaps, is J'mison Morgan, also known as Bobo. A 6'10" center who weighs 248 pounds, this sophomore can possibly be the dominant big man that can impact games. He had 10 blocked shots in 21 games last season and will be expected to block many more shots in the paint.
If Morgan can develop as a shot blocker and scorer in the middle, UCLA can win a lot of games. The same will be the case if Anderson, Lee, and Gordon perform up to their potential on the floor.
Due to their relative inexperience, however, questions persist...
Can the Bruin fans and boosters who grace Pauley Pavilion's hallowed seats be patient with their team's youth and the growing pains that will undoubtedly ensue? Will they turn on Howland if things don't go so well right away, which they may not?
Their schedule is not that forgiving; not only do they have to face powerhouses such as Kansas and Mississippi State, plus Notre Dame in South Bend, UCLA also has to face some tough opponents in their own conference.
California and Washington are projected to finish 1-2 in the Pac-10 and will be tough battles for the Bruins. Oregon and Oregon State will be improved, and Arizona will always be difficult.
The Pac-10's preseason media poll has UCLA finishing third in the conference, while ESPN picks them to finish fifth.
Indeed, this edition of Bruin hoops could finish 20-10 with a good seed in the NCAA Tournament, go 15-15 with an NIT bid, or struggle at 10-20 and miss the postseason altogether; it is all very much up in the air.
As such, I will be happy to see these UCLA hoopsters, who are obviously in a transitional stage, finish in the top five in the Pac-10 Conference and make the Big Dance with an at-large bid. This will show me that the Bruin program is continuing in the right direction.
That's all I really want from UCLA basketball this year, for them to continue their spectacular tradition of excellence: 30 conference crowns, 18 Final Fours, and most importantly, an NCAA-leading 11 national championships, including 10 in 12 years—and seven in a row—under a man who was recently voted the greatest sports coach of all time, John Wooden.
It's a huge legacy to live up to, but if these current Bruins step up and produce, there is no reason why this season can't be a good one in Westwood.